Italy slammed by court over forced return of migrants to Libya
The European Court of Human Rights on Thursday (23 February) ruled that Italy’s decision to send fleeing refugees and African migrants crossing the Mediterranean back to Libya was a violation of fundamental human rights.
“Returning migrants to Libya without examining their case exposed them to a risk of ill-treatment and amounted to collective expulsion,” said the Strasbourg court.
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The ruling could have widespread implications for EU member states on how they handle and treat every intercepted individual seeking asylum outside their territory said the Italian Council of Refugees, which brought the lawsuit against Italy.
The perilous 620km journey across the sea to Italy’s Lampedusa island by refugees and migrants last year saw 1,500 lives lost as boats overturned and sunk. The more fragile succumbed to dehydration and exposure.
Others, in their attempt to reach salvation in a Europe they thought would be welcoming, were instead faced with an Italian military instructed by Rome to send them back to Tripoli.
In May 2009, the Italians forced the return of 200 people, including 11 Somalian and 13 Eritrean nationals who then took their case to Strasbourg and upon whom Thursday’s verdict is based.
The Italian coastguard picked them up some 50km south of Lampedusa and transferred them to Italian military vessels. All 200 were led to believe they were heading to Italy but were then handed over to Libyan authorities upon landing in Tripoli.
Italy argued in its defence that Libya was a “safe country” and that the migrants picked up by its vessels had never expressed any clear desire to seek refuge in Italy.
“They were in the water for 23 hours so its ridiculous to pretend that they should have to ask for asylum while onboard. They were in a bad state,” Antoni Giulio Lana, an attorney representing the victims, told this website by phone from Rome.
The bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya to return migrants to Libya remains intact since it was first introduced in February 2009. Italy’s former Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, from the anti-immigrant Lega Nord party, said at the time the agreement was instrumental in the fight against “illegal immigration” and that it discourages human trafficking.
"The European Court took a wrong decision. I'm absolutely sure that everything was done respecting European laws. Those provisions saved many human lives that would have been put at risk during the trips attempting to reach Italy," Maroni told Italian press on Thursday.
The new court ruling could see Prime Minister Mario Monti’s technocrat government to review the agreement penned by former prime minister Berlusconi, said Lana. The agreement was temporarily suspended in February last year following the Libyan uprising.
In Tripoli, fourteen of the 200 defendants had been granted refugee status by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) between June and October 2009. But Colonel Gadhafi, Libya's former leader, kicked out the UNHCR in 2010. This was followed by reports that the country’s remaining refugees hid themselves away in deplorable conditions and suffered widespread abuse. Many, including those granted refugee status by the UNHCR, feared the Libyans would mistake them for Gadhafi’s mercenaries.
Italy also suspected some of the passengers were potentially dangerous and allegedly planted by Colonel Gadhafi in retaliation for Rome’s decision to allow NATO to launch strikes from its territory. “We can’t be sure there are no terrorists on board,” said Maroni in March.
The UNHCR believes more than 1,000 migrants, including pregnant women and children, were intercepted and forcibly returned to Libya by Italy without an assessment of their need for protection.
The 200 people are currently dispersed throughout several countries including Tunisia, Cyprus and Malta. Only one managed to return to Italy and was subsequently granted refugee status.
“Many have since fled and disappeared since the war in Libya,” said Lana, adding that all are entitled to return to Italy to seek asylum and receive each a €15,000 pay-out by the government following the court ruling.